The Changed Dog

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“Billy’s really sick, isn’t he?” Tommy’s eyes were wide and shining with unshed tears.

“Yes, you know he’s sick,” James said. “We’ve been talking about that for more than a week now, haven’t we?”

“But I mean really sick. Like…he might not get better,” Tommy barely whispered the last words.

James squirmed uncomfortably, the common dilemma of a father who doesn’t want to be forthcoming.

“Everything will be fine,” he finally promised. “Whatever happens…everything will be just fine.”

Tommy looked far from convinced, but there was something in his father’s tone that let him know the matter was concluded. And so they completed their night-time ritual and he was left to fall asleep. His mind was racing, though, and it was nearly an hour before his dreams finally took him.

Strange dreams they were, too, where he was running through a field, searching for his missing dog. He kept on thinking he saw it’s steel-gray flank before him, but upon nearing it always found something else. “Billy!” he called. “Billy!” But no one answered.

Downstairs in the house, James gave their Siberian Husky a long, hard stare. The dog was laying flat on its belly, jaw resting on the carpet, but eyes open and lazily regarding their master. There was a deep wistfulness in those eyes, and it seemed to understand where James’s thoughts were. It was the father who broke the gaze first. He turned his back to the pet and went to the phone on the wall.

As he hung up at the end of his call Susan stepped into the room.

“Did you tell Tommy? Before he went to bed?”

“No.”

“He’s going to be crushed.”

“He doesn’t need to know.”

*

The next morning Tommy came down the stairs and found the dog kennel empty.

“Billy?… Billy!” he called. “Billy!” He rushed from room to room, calling the dog’s name, but found nothing.

“Billy!”

He ran out the front door, frantically looking up and down the street. Had the dog wandered off, sick and confused? Had his parents taken it without telling him?

“BILLY!” he shouted, his bare feet pattering down the sidewalk. He called the dog’s name, but he knew in his heart that there wouldn’t be any answer. Slowly he came to a stop, and felt the tears forming in his eyes.

“Thomas?”

The boy spun around and saw his mother coming out from working in the backyard.

“Mom! Where’s Billy?!”

“Get over here, you’re still in your pajamas! Your father took Billy to the vet this morning.”

“To put him down?” hot tears splashed down Tommy’s cheeks.

“No. I don’t–your father said it’ll be alright. He said you wait and see when he comes home.”

“How? Billy’s too old for the vet to do anything for him.”

“You’ll just have to wait and see, but come indoors.”

That evening James came home…alone. As soon as he opened the door to the house he found himself face-to-face with his son, accusation etched over the boy’s eyes.

“You’ve killed him!” Tommy declared.

“What? Who?”

“You took Billy to be put down!” Tommy teetered on the edge of losing all composure.

“No,” James said firmly. “They’re seeing to him now. I thought he’d be ready to bring back this afternoon but he’s not. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

Tommy squinted suspiciously at his father, but there wasn’t anything concrete to justify his doubts, so he merely trudged away, shaking his head.

Susan looked up from peeling carrots after the boy had left.

“Don’t you think he’s old enough to know the truth?” she asked. “Putting it off for today is only going to make things worse when we do have to tell him.”

“Actually, it’s all been arranged. I’ve been in contact with a kennel in Springdale. ‘Billy’ will be vaccinated and ready for his new home tonight.”

Susan did not match his smug smile.

“I don’t know, dear,” she said slowly. “I honestly feel like that’s just going to be worse.”

“Well you never had any pets growing up, you don’t know what it’s like. Trust me, will you?”

The next morning was the weekend, so both James and Susan were waiting for Tommy as he came down the stairs and saw Billy back in his kennel.

“What?!” he said in awe.

The dog stood tall and alert, his fur coat full and shiny like it hadn’t been in months.

“I told you to count on your old man!” James crowed.

“But–how?” Tommy asked. “He was just old, I thought. What can a vet do for just being old? I was afraid he–“

“Well that’s just the problem!” James interjected. “Dogs can smell fear, can’t they? Old Billy could feel how afraid you were, and that was just a whole other stress for him to deal with. Had him worried sick. I think spending some time away from all our fretting was the best medicine he could get! But what are you waiting for, boy? Come say hello to your old buddy!”

The dog craned its head up to look at its master, regarding him with curious eyes. It heard a movement ahead and saw the small boy drawing near with hand outstretched. Instantly a growl resonated in its throat.

“Billy?” Tommy asked and the dog barked loudly.

Tommy frowned and side-stepped to the shelf of doggie treats and toys.

“Look boy, a biscuit!” he held the treat aloft, then lobbed it over. It feel between the dog’s paws, and it glanced down, then locked eyes with Tommy again.

Tommy picked a clicker off the shelf and clicked it two times.

Nothing.

He clicked it two times once more.

Nothing.

“What’s happened, dad? He doesn’t remember me or anything!”

“Well…” James’s eyes roved as he sought to explain. “Can you blame him? He’s been through so much lately, hasn’t he? Not to mentioned being out of practice for the past few weeks. So yeah, maybe he’s a bit muddled and confused, but he’s still our boy, isn’t he?”

“I suppose.”

“Just give him some time. He’s got to get used to being well again, but everything will be right as rain soon, you’ll see.”

James happened to catch the look of concern in his wife’s face.

“You’ll see,” he repeated.

But over the rest of the morning there was no denying that Billy simply did not like Tommy. Did not like him one bit. The boy couldn’t come near without the dog starting to growl and bare his teeth.

Later that day Susan had the dog lay on its side and she petted it soothingly, while Tommy offered the dog a treat. The dog only snarled until Tommy placed the treat on the ground and backed away, then it lapped the biscuit up. But as soon as the snack was down the dog went back to fixing the boy once more with an imperious glare.

“But he was my friend!” Tommy wailed. “How come he isn’t my friend anymore? I want my Billy back, not this bully!”

“Let’s try and find something the three of us can do together,” Susan suggested. “Something distracting. Billy always loved going for his walks, didn’t he?”

“Do you think he still would? He seems to hate everything that he used to love before.”

But Billy did enjoy the walk. He even let Tommy walk alongside him without any growls, as he was too distracted by all the new scents and sounds to be mean.

“Can I have the leash, Mom?”

“Better not.”

“Can I take him for his walk by myself tomorrow?”

“No, you’re too little.”

“But you always let me before. You said Billy could keep me safe.”

“Well…I think Billy still has to do some more getting used to you.”

James was present later that afternoon when Tommy tried to offer a treat to the dog again. Billy barked and Tommy dropped the treat in fright.

“No, Thomas,” James scolded as Billy lapped the treat up. “You’re teaching him that he can bully you and still get rewarded for it. We have to be tougher with him. If he doesn’t behave, he doesn’t get a treat. Grab another of those treats and let’s try this again.”

James crouched down by Billy, his arm across the dog’s back.

“Now bring that treat forward, and don’t act scared. He’ll never respect you if you act scared around him.”

“But he used to respect me.”

“Never mind what he used to do. This is how he is now. Bring the treat.”

Tommy started to extend the biscuit, and as expected Billy’s lips drew back over his lips and he started to growl. In a flash James had struck it across the nose, eliciting a small yelp.

“Don’t hit him!” Tommy cried.

“I know how to raise a dog. Now offer him the treat again.”

Another growl, another slap, another yelp.

“Again.”

This time James clamped his hand around Billy’s snout, forcing the dog to swallow his growl. The dog strained to leave, but James held him firmly in place, held him until the dog stopped straining.

“Good. Now pet him.”

“But he’ll–“

“He’ll do nothing. I have him under control. Pet him around his collar and leave the treat at his feet.”

Tommy did so, then took a step back so that his father could release the dog.

“Not too far,” James instructed. “He still has to understand he only gets his treat when he lets you be near.”

Then he released the dog. Billy whimpered at James, eyes downcast and ashamed.

“You brought it on yourself,” James said sternly. “Now take your treat.”

Billy sniffed idly at the biscuit, and gave it a little lick.

“You see, Thomas? That’s how it’s going to be. We’ll have him in his place in no time.”

“But I don’t want him ‘in his place.’ This is mean. He never had to be put ‘in his place’ before, he was just a good dog already.”

“You don’t approve? Then I guess I’d better take him back to the kennel now,” and having said so, James made to grab the leash off the rack.

“What?!” Tommy exclaimed. “You’re going to get rid of him?”

“Why not? You don’t want him anymore.”

“I didn’t mean that! Please daddy, no! I’ll make him respect me, I promise.”

“Doesn’t it sound too mean, though?”

“No, it’s fine! I’ll do it. I promise!”

“Hmm…well I guess I’ll wait on it for now then. Why don’t you go play?”

Tommy scampered off, and James turned around to meet his wife’s frown.

“What? That was actual progress!”

*

The next morning Tommy came downstairs early, before either of his parents had awoken. Billy was still asleep as well, and hadn’t fully roused before Tommy already had the leash hooked up to his collar.

“Come on, ” Tommy said officiously, “we’re going for our walk.”

Billy gave a little snarl, but was still too groggy to do anything more.

“None of that! You’re going to respect me now, boy.”

A dangling treat and a tug on the leash and Billy reluctantly rose to his feet and plodded with the boy down the stairs. Once the two of them were outside the cool morning air woke the dog up fully, and it started walking along at a brisk pace.

“Attaboy!” Tommy said brightly. “I don’t know how you’ve forgotten so much, but you and I are best friends. And you’re gonna remember it.”

They came to a street corner and Billy made to turn.

“No Billy, you know we’re not allowed down there. Daddy and Mommy don’t want us anywhere near the rail yard.” He tugged the leash to guide Billy back, but the dog whipped back with a snap of its teeth.

“Billy, no!” Tommy said firmly. “I don’t want to be tough on you…but I will be until you agree to be friends with me again.”

A deep growl started to reverberate in Billy’s throat. Tommy thought about letting go of the leash, but he knew he just had to be tough. Knew he just had to push on until he finally got through to his beloved friend. He lifted his hand and slapped the dog across the nose.

And that was that.

*

James and Susan came down from their bedroom less than hour later.

“Tommy? Are you down here? Tommy?”

They saw the empty kennel, saw the leash missing on the rack. They each fixed the other with the same look of horror, bolted out the front door, and streaked down different roads.

“Tommy!” they called. “Tommy!” But no one answered.

“TOMMY!” they shouted, their bare feet thundering down the sidewalk. They called their son’s name, but they knew in their hearts that there wouldn’t be any answer.

On Monday I spoke about stories that repeat the same messages, or even the exact same lines, in order to reinforce or evolve a central idea. The very end of this story, of course, ended with the two parents searching for the boy that they would not find, and I used the exact same phrasing as when I wrote about Tommy looking for the dog that he also would never find.

And my hope is that this symmetry will hammer home the main theme of my story: searching for that which is lost, searching for that which cannot be found. Even after “Billy” has been restored back to Tommy, Tommy is still searching for his old friend. There is a dog before him that answers to the same name as before, but it is just a facade, the relationship is still missing. Sadly, Tommy is too young and naive to understand that the old relationship cannot be regained, for the beloved dog he is looking for is already dead.

But it isn’t just the true Billy that has been lost, Tommy has been lost as well. And Tommy was lost even before he took the dog out that fateful morning. By the loss of his pet, and by being the victim of deceit, his innocence has been taken from him. His parents, particularly his father, had already arranged his demise. By trying to protect him, they doomed him.

Which, of course, was written with a specific message to convey. This story is a statement that not being allowed to mourn the wound only creates a greater wounding. Hiding pain only makes it become worse, just as telling lies only increases the sin. The immoral comfort of today only ensures retribution for tomorrow.

I tried to prepare readers for that take-away, by first making it clear that the father’s approach to the whole situation–buying a new dog to replace the second–was wrong. By knowing his behavior was wrong, they could start asking themselves why. But how did I tell the audience that the father’s behavior was wrong? By making him do unpleasant things, such as be condescending to his wife and pompous to his son. In this way I signaled to the readers what their feelings towards him and his philosophies should be, even before the outcome of them was seen.

Is that manipulative? Maybe…but I think that question requires a deeper analysis than we have time for here. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on this common pattern in story-telling and whether it is fair for a writer to employ it or not. I’ll see you then.

Play it Again

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It Sounded Different the First Time)

There is a classic folk rock song called Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin, and every time I hear it I have a lot of emotions stirred up inside me. The structure of the song is a story told through a series of snapshots, with the chorus being repeated between each chapter/verse. The person singing tells the part of a father who is so busy with business that he misses the birth and first steps of his own son. At the time he affirms that they will have time together someday, and takes comfort in the fact that his son is destined to be just like him. The same pattern repeats when the son is ten, and wants to play catch, but the dad is again too busy.

At this point the song takes a turn. The next snapshot is that of the boy having just graduated from college. The father is so proud of him, and wants to talk to him, but all the boy wants is the keys to the car. There will be time to catch up later, after all. And then comes the final chapter, where the father is now retired and has a bounty of time on his hands. He calls his son, expressing his desire to connect, and the now-adult son affirms his own desire to do so as well…if he could just find the time. And then the father realizes that the boy really did grow up to be just like him.

It is an emotional story all on its own, but the format of telling it through a song allows Harry Chapin to drive its themes even more deeply into the heart. Because, after all, songs have choruses and repeated lyrics, which Chapin cleverly utilizes to reinstate prior ideas, and even twist them.

Thus the the line

He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, dad”
“You know I’m gonna be like you”

in the first verse is full of pride and anticipation. It is the father relishing a son that will emanate all of his virtues. But when it returns at the end as

He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

it is overflowing with regret. It is the father realizing that his son instead inherited all of his flaws.  And Chapin doesn’t have to spell things out for us in a blunt or heavy-handed way, he just repeats the same line under a new context, and the irony hits us like a ton of bricks.

Echoes of the Past)

This sort of repeated statement is utilized multiple times in the musical rendition of Les Miserables. An idea is sung in one song, and then later returns in another. However these restatements are not only used to twist an idea into something ironic, sometimes they are to give a fuller, more reinforced weight to the same idea.

Consider the song Valjean’s Soliloquy, in which the protagonist struggles to accept the grace that is being offered him. The cynicism in him says that there is too much hurt and sin in him to ever change, yet even so he feels the pull to be a new man. He concludes this song with the following words:

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
As I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin

And so he concludes the life of a sinner and begins a new journey as a saint. It would already have been a powerful moment if left in isolation, but later it gets doubled down on by Javert. Javert is the man who has absolutely refused to let go of Valjean’s old sins. He feels a great need to prove that Valjean’s “new leaf” is nothing more than a con-artist sham. Javert is the embodiment of that same cynicism Valjean once held for himself, that there is too much sin for one to truly change.

But then, finally, Valjean manages to convince Javert. He has the opportunity to kill his old tormentor…and he sets him free instead. In the face of this Javert has to accept the reality that he is wrong. Valjean is not the scheming blackheart that Javert has tried to cast him as. This brings us to Javert’s Soliloquy, which ends in these words:

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!

And so he concludes the life of a condemner, and throws himself into the Seine. Just like the segment from Valjean, but twisted to condemnation instead of salvation. The reborn Valjean is simply too expansive a presence for pessimists and abusers to share in his world. His rise requires all the others to disappear into the shadows one way or the other, and the musical makes this message crystal clear by repeating its ideas under different contexts.

The Perfect Storm)

In my most recent story I also tried to implement repeated statements for amplified effect. My approach, however, was to create three different statements, one for each of my characters, which were then each repeated together at the end of the tale. Thus the final scene does not present any ideas that weren’t already given before, it just stacks them all together until they become an overwhelming chorus.

In Bartholomew we saw that he was pulling on his shipmates’ strings, goading them into violence when he provoked Julian into lashing out. That was immediately followed by us seeing how Julian was unafraid to resort to violence to silence his enemies and cover his sins. That was followed by us seeing how Captain Molley was reaching the limits of his temper, champing to execute his justice on Julian.

Each of those moments overlapped only briefly, but then, in the final moments, Bartholomew goads Julian into choosing sides, Julian feels himself teetering back towards violence, and Captain Molley starts poking old wounds rather than pacifying the situation. Every isolated voice is now reinforced by the others, and so the climatic fallout at last occurs.

With my next story I am going to take this tool of restating in a different way. I am going to try and replicate the example in Cat’s in the Cradle and Les Miserables, where an actual line is repeated verbatim (or close to verbatim), but under different contexts that give it entirely different meaning. But the two different meanings combine to make one, reinforced idea together. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

Principle and Example

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Repeated Tales)

In old France a beautiful woman named Belle is shocked by the hideous exterior of a cruel Beast. Fate intervenes to keep the two in close proximity, and over time each character’s heart begins to thaw and they grow to care for one another. True love is found, a spell is broken, and the two live happily ever after.

Meanwhile, over in Old England Elizabeth Bennet is shocked by the haughty snobbery of Mr. Darcy. Fate again intervenes to keep the two in close proximity, and again over time each character’s heart begins to thaw and they grow to care for one another. True love is found, previous hurts are mended, and the two live happily ever after.

Despite the similarity between these two stories, Pride and Prejudice is not assumed to be a reinterpretation of Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps Jane Austen was subconsciously influenced by the themes of that earlier work, but then every author is at least somewhat shaded by the ideas that have gone before.

It’s especially interesting to me how similar these two stories are, even when the setting of each is so different. Beauty and the Beast comes from a land of magic and fantasy, Pride and Prejudice is grounded strictly in a natural world, though perhaps one inhabited by caricatures.

Batman is the Scarlet Pimpernel, but with more radiation-powered bad-guys. The James Cameron film Avatar is the same story beats as Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, but now set on an alien world. Star Wars takes the feudal Japan of The Hidden Fortress, and trades it for the vast emptiness of space. Ulysses drops the mythic gods of The Odyssey in favor of 20th century Dublin.

It seems perfectly clear that themes and basic plot constructs are not confined to particular genres or world-settings. It is possible to tell the same story with entirely different trappings. What then is the difference between a story set in realism and another set in fantasy? Are there certain strengths to each, or are they truly interchangeable?

 

Example vs Principle)

I’ve known several women who have said they want to find a man like Mr Darcy. I don’t think I know any, though, who have said they want to find a man like the Beast. Though their stories are the same and both characters are works of fiction, the Beast seems somehow more pretend to us. It feels strange to say that one would want to live in a world so completely given over to fantasy.

A story that is grounded in reality provides for us an “example.” Though it is not real, it feels real. It is an instance of life that reminds us of similar realities we ourselves have experienced. The applications of its lessons are obvious and direct, one can immediately understand that one should never judge a book by its cover in matter of the heart. However, because the lesson is so closely coupled with a lifelike situation, it is more limited in its application. For example it would be a stretch to apply the principles from Pride and Prejudice to issues of racial strife, but it is a far easier thing to do with Beauty and the Beast.

This is because more fantastic stories tend to provide us a “principle.” Principles might be tougher to chew on at first, but they are considerably more adaptable to a broad spectrum of scenarios. The Beast isn’t really a person, he’s an idea: ugliness. And ugliness can be recognized in all manner of different forms.

So which method should we learn by? Example or principle? Well… both, really. We try to teach our children principles, and then we model those principles by our example. A mathematics lesson usually begins by illustrating the principle in the form of a proof, and then shows its application with an example problem. Aspiring artists are educated on the theory behind color, shape, and balance, and are then shown specific examples from the masters that showcase the implementations of these principles.

Each of us is partial to one form of learning or the other, although we all benefit at least somewhat from both. There’s more than enough reason, therefore, to write stories that fall on either side of reality.

 

Blends and Exceptions)

Of course not every story falls neatly onto just one side of the spectrum or the other. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a story set in a realistic world and populated by believable characters. It’s just that two of those characters happen to be different incarnations of the same man, brought about by use of a fantastic serum. In Utterson we find a realistic example of a man dealing with a friend in trouble, and in Jekyll and Hyde we have a more allegorical depiction of addiction.

In recent decades the trend has been to take the more fantastic worlds, and inhabit them with more lifelike characters. Where superheroes like Superman were initially written to be allegorical idols of perfection, now they are usually just everyday people like you and me in a world just like our own. I’m not sure if that is better, worse, or neither, it’s just an interesting trend to note.

And of course, there are many stories that don’t have a point at all. They aren’t made to be relatable to us either by example or principle, they are merely meant to entertain us through a swashbuckling adventure. Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, lacks a relatable setting, is full of hyperbolic characters, and does not attempt any meaningful allegorical lesson. It is, however, just a lot of fun. I’m not sure how long these sorts of stories are remembered over long periods of time, though, they may be brief touchstones that garner a moment of attention and nothing more.

 

If you haven’t already, it’s well worth asking yourself what the lesson behind your own stories is meant to be. Whether it is a lesson taught by example or principle, whether in a realistic setting or a fantastic one, whether with lifelike characters or caricatures. All combinations of these are valid options, what matters is that whichever configuration you choose you do so intentionally.

Here in the United States of America we have a narrative type called “tall tales” which blends the two styles in an interesting way. These are stories of individuals that are said to have lived among ordinary people in an ordinary setting, but that performed superhuman feats when needed. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry and more are larger-than-life characters that were too big for the reality they were cast in.

Previously I’ve written a lifelike-example in the form of I Hated You, Jimmy and also a fantasy-principle with The Anther-Child. This Thursday, though, I’d like to try my hand at a story that straddles the two extremes in the same way as one of these American “tall tales.” Come back then to see how it goes!